Updated: Jul 12, 2021
When you live in the United States, speaking any second language isn’t easy. And it’s especially not easy if it’s a language that’s mostly spoken on the other side of the world.
Unfortunately, our American educational system doesn’t make it easy to learn a second language, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. There are four categories of resources I use (most of them – free!) to keep my French brain vivant : podcasts, movies & TV, books, and plain old conversation. Let’s start with the easiest one.
PREMIÈRE PARTIE: Podcasts
1) France Inter – Le Journal 18H (Apple Podcasts)
France Inter is basically a state-sponsored French version of NPR, and this program is a podcast version of the 6 p.m. news. I like listening to it because it’s short and to the point – usually only around 10 or 15 minutes – and it’s a great way to stay connected to the world outside of the U.S. partisan news bubbles.
2) France Inter – On va déguster (Apple Podcasts)
This program is fascinating. On On va déguster (which means “we will taste”), host François Régis-Gaudry interviews a new chef, winemaker, food scientist, sommelier, or cultural expert every week to explore the food and beverage culture of all kinds of places around the world. They did a great episode on the food and wine of Alto Adige a few weeks ago that I just loved. It’s perfect if you’re a francophile foodie like me!
3) France Inter – Les savantes (Apple Podcasts)
Les savantes translates to “The Female Scholars”, and the program interviews badass women who’ve made a name for themselves in the intellectual world. It covers all kinds of topics from geology to gender studies to chemistry – all from a feminist lens. The women on this show are remarkable and many of them are top prize winners and researchers in their fields of study.
4) Fort & Clair – La Terre à Boire (Apple Podcasts)
This podcast, the title of which roughly translates to “The Earth to Drink” or “Drinking the Earth” (I just love how poetic French is), is quite simply all about the wine industry in France. There’s everything here from star sommelier interviews, updates on the harvests, and even cultural trends like “Bordeaux Bashing” and the state of the alcohol industry in France and abroad. And the hosts are always cracking jokes!
For Fun (in English): The Thing About France (Apple Podcasts)
Ok, not in French, but if you’re a Francophile and you want to learn more about the culture in English, I can’t recommend this podcast enough. It’s produced by the Cultural Services department at the French Embassy in New York, and it interviews famous American Francophiles to discuss their relationship with France and French culture. The conversations run deep and often controversial, but I find myself binge-listening to them when I’m relaxing at home.
DEUXIÈME PARTIE: Movies & TV
1) Dix Pour Cent (Call My Agent) – Netflix
I. Am. Obsessed. With. This. Show. I think it’s by far my favorite show of all time – in either language. And I’m not alone – it’s one of the most popular TV shows in France and totally star studded. The show follows the life and work of an imaginary Parisian talent management agency, A.S.K. Not only are the agents stars in French film but their guest stars are as well – Julien Doré, Jean Dujardin, Isabelle Huppert, and Cécile de France all make appearances. It’s hilarious, heartwarming, dramatic, and relatable.
2) Intouchables (The Untouchables) – Netflix
A critically acclaimed film, Intouchables chronicles an unlikely partnership (and later, friendship) between a wealthy white quadriplegic and his young black caretaker. It’s a culture, race, and generation clash that is as funny as it is sincere. Truly a must-see.
3) Marseille – Netflix
In sharp contrast to Dix Pour Cent, this series was critically a hot mess, but it’s got Gerard Depardieu and French political drama so…do I really care? At times it can be a bit difficult to follow so it’ll take all your concentration, but also provides interesting cultural perspective on French politics and corruption.
4) Paris je t’aime – Netflix
A classic if EVER there was one! Watch the French parts without subtitles and the English parts with French subtitles – trust me, it changes the experience entirely.
5) What the F*ck France?! – YouTube
Paul Taylor is an international treasure. You could probably watch anything he produces on YouTube to keep your French language and culture skills on point. He’s a British comedian who grew up in France, so his accent and linguistic street cred make him sound French. I saw him live in Paris once in a comedic stand up routine that was half French and half English and 100% hilarious. He has multiple shows across France and the UK, the best of which, like What the F*ck France? and Franglais can be found on his YouTube.
TROISIÈME PARTIE: BOOKS
1) Literally anything by George Sand
My favorites by Sand include Indiana and La Petite Fadette, but she wrote nearly a hundred works so there’s a lot to choose from. Her books aren’t too long nor do they use overly flowery language (yeah here’s looking at you, Hugo and Flaubert) so they’re accessible if you’re re-learning French or trying to keep a grasp on it. Also, female cross dressing gender bending novelists #FTW.
2) L’élégance du hérisson (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) – Muriel Barbery
Also probably a favorite of mine that transcends language, Barbery’s book is internationally renowned. It’s about a middle aged concierge Renée who works in an upper class apartment building and has for nearly her entire life. Because of her social status, everyone assumes her to be uneducated and stupid, but in fact she’s self taught in literature, philosophy, and history. She connects with a young woman, Paloma, also extraordinarily smart. Paloma thinks her family are all snobs and wants to kill herself to escape from the stupidity of those around her, but her friendship with Renée and their mutual friend, Ozu, sways her opinion.
3) Changer l’eau des fleurs (Change the Flower Water) – Valérie Perrin
I picked up this book last year in Paris when I was preparing for my Loire Valley vineyard trip – a trip that meant quite a lot of driving and train rides. I wasn’t disappointed. What I love about this book is that it takes place in the heart of French wine country – a small town in Bourgogne – but has nothing to do with wine. Instead, it follows the life of Violette, who guards a provincial cemetery and lives on the property. As people come by to visit loved ones, they often stop by her home to chat. The result is a beautifully written, exceptional book on life, love, death, and the impact of our time on Earth.
In closing, I’d like to say that there’s really no substitute for simply holding conversational French with friends, family, or coworkers. Having lived in France and worked at a French marketing agency, I’m lucky in that I have a lot of people I can connect with to keep my language skills up. While we don’t connect as often as I’d like, it’s not only nice to grab lunch outside the office sometimes, but a good end of week challenge to stimulate the French speaking side of my brain with conversation. And if you don’t yet have the contacts, make some! Join a MeetUp French conversation group, or peruse Facebook groups. You never know what you’ll find until you look for it.
Bonne continuation et à bientôt!